Thomas Hood on Religion

Little is know about Hood's specific religious beliefs but he uses some of his strongest language to condemn religious intolerance, rigidity and hypocrisy.

Note: Most of the graphics below were not originally associated with the works they accompany (notice the differing sources and dates). They are meant to illustrate other treatments of the same subjects. The sources of most are show in their captions or when you hold the mouse cursor over them.

"Address to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster," Odes and Addresses to Great People (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1825), 125-132.

illustration of a pun

Hood satirizes the practice of charging fees to tour Westminster Abbey. He suggests that profits might be increased if they put up colorful signs outside and have a barker call

   All dead! All dead! Walk in! Walk in!
He asks whether they are making arrangements with famous living poets to have them interred in the Poet's Corner:

   Why don't ye warn the Great to take
   Their ashes to no other heap?

La Trappe Abbey (France) was built by the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The Trappists were contemplative monks who rarely spoke; they produced several products and were famous for their beer. During the French Revolution the abbey was suspended. Later the monks returned and rebuilt it and in 1832 it was consecrated. La trappe means "trapdoor" in English. No one is exactly sure why the abbey was called La Trappe. The illustration may make a comment on organized religion or religious orders or it may simply be a humorous visual pun.

"Ode to Sir Andrew Agnew, Bart.," The Comic Annual (London: Charles Tilt, 1834), 72-78.

illustration of a pun

Between 1832 and 1837 Andrew Agnew introduced several bills in Parliament to deal with "Sabbath-breaking" by outlawing various kinds of work, travel and other activities on Sundays. Most people worked at least five and one-half days a week; many worked six days and some worked seven. Hood says, "I do not like my Church so very High!" In this punning poem he defends the laboring man's right in travel to the parks, buy fresh milk from a farm, and buy or sell apples on the street. The bill would make the Sabbath a day of repression rather than recreation:

   After creation should come re-creation.
   Read right this text [of the bill], and do not further search
   To make a Sunday Workhouse of the Church.

Later in 1836 in "Sunday Under Three Heads" Charles Dickens also strongly condemned an Agnew bill that would have banned some types of work on Sunday.

"An Open Question," New Monthly Magazine, August 1840.

illustration of bear climbing a pole

In this punning poem Hood responds to yet another proposal to keep the Sabbath holy -- by closing the Zoological Gardens on Sunday.

   Now, really, this appears the common case
   Of putting too much Sabbath into Sunday --

He humorously responds to the possible reasons for closing the gardens and makes a case for a trip to the Gardens being a beneficial activity for everyone, including the poor.

   In spite of all the fantastic compiles, [compilations]
   I cannot think the day a bit diviner,
   Because no children, with forestalling smiles,
   Throng, happy, to the gates of Eden Minor --

   What harm if men who burn the midnight-oil,
   Weary of frame, and worn and wan of feature,
   Seek once a week their spirits to assoil,
   And snatch a glimpse of "Animated Nature"?

Every stanza, including the final, ends with the same question:

   And sure as fate they [the Saints Zoological] will deny us next
   To see the Dandelions on a Sunday --
   But what is your opinion, Mrs. Grundy?1

"The Bridge of Sighs," Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany (London: H. Renshaw, May 1844), 414-417.

Following the publication of this poem, Waterloo Bridge in London became the symbolic location of female suicide ("The Bridge of Sighs") -- the place where women, chaste or unchaste, victimized or wicked, achieved redemption through drowning. Although Waterloo Bridge was the sight of numerous suicides, more men than women committed suicide in London and most suicides by drowning did not occur there.

Hood began the poem shortly after the widely publicized attempt by Mary Furley, a seamstress, to drown her children and herself in a canal in order to avoid the harsh treatment of the workhouse. She was condemned to death for the murder of one child but demonstrations, lobbying and public sympathy resulted in her sentence being reduced to seven years transportation. The final version of the poem contains none of the details of the Furley case; he transformed her into a representative figure of the seduced, impoverished, abandoned woman who is purified by drowning in the polluted Thames: "All that remains of her/ Now is pure womanly."

The poem is sentimental. The speaker says "Lift her with care," touch her "Gently and humanly," arrange her hair, wipe the muck from her lips, close her eyes and cross her hands on her body. Nothing of the physical damage that would result from jumping from the bridge is described: "Death has left on her/ Only the beautiful."

What is important is Hood's understanding of what could cause someone to commit the heinous crime of self murder and his forgiving attitude. Hood says that "Alas! for the rarity/ Of Christian charity" another woman has jumped to her death. She was homeless. Although her act was "rashly importunate," she was driven to it by "Cold inhumanity,/ Burning insanity."

She is "One more unfortunate," representative of those "Mad from life's history/ Glad to death's mystery" who jump to their deaths. Do not condemn her, he says; treat her kindly:

   Owning her weakness,
   Her evil behaviour,
   And leaving, with meekness,
   Her sins to her Saviour!

illustration of the turnstile at Waterloo Bridge

Hood's poem was extremely popular and frequently reprinted and the "myth" of "The Bridge of Sighs" persisted. More than a decade later George Augustus Sala in Twice Round the Clock describes what he sees as he travels around London. In the "2 A.M." chapter he is at Waterloo Bridge when a woman approaches and requests a halfpenny for the toll to cross the bridge. He gives it to her, she passes through the turnstile -- "Anywhere, anywhere,/ Out of the world, perhaps" -- and he hastens away.2

Fifty years later Arthur Morrison in his short story "One More Unfortunate," still describes it as the place where

... the life-weary, and those drunk enough to feel so, from all Wapping, Shadwell, and Ratcliff flung over into the foul dock-fluid, and were drowned and lost, or fished out, dead or alive as the case might be, with boat-hooks. Mostly they were women. And there were so many that a policeman on that beat would stop and watch any woman as she crossed the bridge, and would hasten to move on one who showed a sign of lingering.3

Morrison, however, gives the story an ironic twist. Bill Harnell, a lighterman, has some good fortune even though times are bad and he buys a new coat, hat and boots. Walking home he sees a woman jump off the Bridge of Sighs. He removes his hat, coat and boots, jumps in the river and saves her. Back on shore he sees that his hat, coat and boots are not where he left them and when he turns to the woman he saved, she is running away. It was a scam: the woman, who can swim, and her man, who steals the clothes, work together. Bill, not the woman, is the "unfortunate one."

"Suggestions by Steam," Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany (London: H. Renshaw, Jan 1845), 24.

This is another poem about women who jump to their deaths into the Thames. If "man" (husbands, fathers, brothers, mankind) would listen to "that small voice" that cries "Ease her!" and "Back her!," then less often would he hear the voice that cries "Stop her!"

"Ode to Rae Wilson, Esquire," Athenaeum, 12 August 1837.

Rae Wilson was a wealthy, ex-solicitor and evangelical Scot who wrote books about his travels around the world. In these he denigrated Islam and Catholicism and attacked Hood for being insufficiently religious.

In this poem Hood characterizes Wilson and his kind as "self-constituted saints ... who sniff out moral taints"; they are "pesudo Privy Councillors of God ... sure of heaven themselves."

Hood makes several unoriginal but important points, and he does so clearly and forcefully. First, he says that churches aren't necessary: the Creator made for his creatures "all earth a fane, all heaven its dome!" The sound of church bells are sweet, but so too are the hum of bees and the cooing of pigeons and

   If such sweet sounds can't woo you to religion,
   Will the harsh voices of church cads and touters?

A person does not need a church to pray:

   Kneel down remote upon the simple sod,
   And sue in formâ pauperis to God.

Second, Hood considers "faith and prayers/ Amongst the privatest of men's affairs":

   I pray for grace -- repent each sinful act --
   Peruse, but underneath the rose, my Bible.

Third, he condemns narrow-mindedness:

   All creeds I view with toleration thorough.
   And have a horror of regarding heaven
   As anybody's rotten borough.

Therefore, he is

           -- intolerant to none
   Whatever shape the pious rite may bear,
   Even the poor pagan's homage to the sun.
He tells Wilson that before he attacks the religions of others he should consider the fact
   That, by the simple accident of birth,
   You might have been High Priest to Mumbo Jumbo

Hood is not saying that it would be a bad thing to be a priest of Mumbo Jumbo -- simply that Wilson's religion would be different. He would not be one of the "elect." There would be no blame or shame in that. It would simply be a fact. The shame lies in not recognizing this fact.

Whether you were born the youngest daughter of a poor, Protestant family in England or the only son of a wealthy, Muslim family in Egypt was merely an accident of your birth -- the stork had to drop you somewhere. But who your are is largely determined by the accident.

In this poem Hood emphasizes that your religion is usually an accident of your birth; your first (and generally only) religion is that of your parents (or caregivers). In "The Black and White Question," an essay about the unequal treatment of black and white apprentices, he asks

who, with a drachm of philosophy, or a scruple of Christianity, could suppose, that whilst the accidents of colour are overlooked in a good horse, the moral qualities of a human being were weighed down by such skin-deep casualties as occur every day in a baker's oven?4

The color of your skin is a mere accident of your birth, so how could a Christian think it's related to his or her "moral qualities"?

Rae Wilson did not make a comparative study of religions; he did not choose; he was born into a particular religion and reared according to its creed. He was able to travel the world, but rather than being open to new people, places, customs, and ideas, Wilson used his observations to confirm his prejudices.

Finally, Hood says that Wilson and his ilk believe "a notion so unholy"

       that the rich by easy trips
   May go to heaven, whereas the poor and lowly
   Must work their passage, as they do in ships.

Hypocritically, they "frown upon St. Giles's sins, but blink/ The peccadilloes of all Piccadilly." They are

       Obsequious to the sinful man of riches --
   But put the wicked, naked, bare-legged poor,
   In parish stocks, instead of breeches.

The "servitor of God and Mammon" binds "his Bible with his ledger,/ Blends Gospel texts with trading gammon" and balances "the wicked remnant of the week" with his "rigid Sabbath."

Denouncing religious hypocrisy is easy and it needs to be done occasionally, but it leaves the writer open to accusations of being anti-religion. This had already happened to Hood several times which is why he took pains to explain his views. Hood's critique can be summed up in two lines:

   You say -- Sir Andrew [see above] and his love of law.
   And I -- the Saviour with his law of love.

"My Tract," The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 6 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 461-465.

This letter (later published as "My Tract") is a reply to a woman who had written in 1841 to Hood asking what good his comic collection Whims and Oddities would do his soul. The woman was know to Hood; she had visited his home to deliver tracts and her religious opinions. And her mother had given Hood's mother a tract addressed to infidels just before she died.

Hood says that Whims and Oddities "have made thousands laugh" while "[f]anaticism has caused millions to shed blood, as well as tears." He has used his God-given talents in a cheerful spirit and "not abused them by writing the profane stuff called pious poetry, nor spiritualized my prose by stringing together Scriptural phrases, which have become the mere slang of a religious swell mob."

Hood defends secular literature, noting that "the most celebrated authors, the wisest and most learned in the ways of mankind ... have concurred in denouncing, and exposing ... sanctimonious folly and knavery of every description." Further, he thanks God that he has "never profaned His Holy Name with common-place jingles, or passed off inspirations of presumption, vanity, or hypocrisy, for devout effusions."

Although he had several times been close to death, he "never pretended to catch glimpses of its heaven, or of its hell or to have intimations of who, among my neighbours, were on the road to one place or the other."

illustration of 3 poor children

Instead of distributing tracts and recommending fasts to hungry weavers she should try "a little active benevolence" such as helping to clothe and feed the poor. If she must send "religious Swing letters,"5 she should send them to someone else because "I am not to be converted, except from Christianity, by arrogance, insolence and ignorance."

Even in a piece as serious as this Hood puns. He tells the woman to imagine herself on her deathbed and to ask herself if her "extreme devotion has been ... humble to your Creator, but arrogant to His creatures, -- in short, Piety or Mag-piety?"6 And in a famous line he says that "verily if they be the Righteous, I am content to be the Lefteous of the species."

"Death in the Kitchen," The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 5 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 300-302.

illustration of a pun

In this poem Hood confronts the fundamental, universal existential fact; death is inevitable:

   The stoutest lad and wench
   Must lose their places at the will
   Of Death, and go at last to fill
   The sexton's gloomy trench.

Even in a poem as gloomy as this Hood puns, but not for humorous effect. The cook, jovial butler, hapless scullion, pretty lady's maid, coachman, laundress, groom, "And e'en the stable boy will find/ This life no stable thing."

And the burial service is inevitable for those "in service":

   All, all shall have another sort
   Of service after this; -- in short --
   The one the parson reads!

But the reference to the burial service brings no comforting thoughts of resurrection and everlasting life; to live is to always stand on the edge of the grave:

   The dreary grave! -- O, when I think
   How close ye stand upon its brink,
   My inward spirit groans!
   My eyes are filled with dismal dreams
   Of coffins, and this kitchen seems
   A charnel full of bones!

"The Death-Bed," The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 1 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 206.

   We watched her breathing through the night,
     Her breathing soft and low,
   As in her breast the wave of life
     Kept heaving to and fro.

   So silently we seemed to speak,
     So slowly moved about,
   As we had lent her half our powers
     To eke her living out.

   Our very hopes belied our fears,
     Our fears our hopes belied --
   We thought her dying when she slept,
     And sleeping when she died.

   For when the morn came dim and sad,
     And chill with early showers,
   Her quiet eyelids closed -- she had
     Another morn than ours.

The situation in this poem is similar to that in Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz," but the two poems conclude quite differently.7 In both a group of people (presumably family and friends) are gathered around the bed of a dying loved one. They are there to comfort her physically and spiritually, to ease her dying if possible. They await any last requests or bequests. They anticipate the moment of transition from this world to the next. In Dickinson's poem the speaker is the dying person; in Hood's it's one of the watchers.

First Stanza: The dying woman's chest gives no indication of what is happening. Her breathing is "soft and low"; yet, a struggle is taking place: within her breast "the wave of life" is "heaving to and fro." The word breathing is repeated in the first two lines. In the second account of creation in Genesis God "breathed into his [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (KJV, 2, 7). He did not squeeze his heart or spark his brain. Breathing has long been the primary indicator of life, but, as we learn later in the poem, not a reliable one.

Second Stanza: The watchers speak "silently" (nods and gestures) and move slowly. They waste no energy crying and wailing. It's as if they are half dead, having lent her half their "powers" to help her die. Alive, she may have had to eke out a living; dying she must "eke her living out." Her death is not swift nor easy; she must labor to die bit by bit.

Third Stanza: Their hopes belie their fears and vice versa. They hope she will live but fear she will not; they fear she will not die easily but hope it might be so. Hood was criticized for "punning" in lines eleven and twelve: "We thought her dying when she slept,/ And sleeping when she died." The sentence does not actually contain a pun; it is an apt use of antimetabole.8 Rather than detracting from the seriousness of the poem, it emphasizes an important point. The moment of death passes unnoticed: there are no dying words; there is no "death rattle"; there is no indication that she has seen angels coming for her or the dazzling light of heaven. They watch but appearances deceive; she simply "slips away."

Fourth Stanza: Up to this point Hood has used a number of explicit and implicit contrasts: easy breathing/heaving waves of life within her breast; silent speaking; eke out living/eke living out; hopes belie fears/fears belie hopes; dying-slept/sleeping-died. In Dickinson's poem at the moment of death the dying person's attention is drawn to a blue buzzing fly which fills her vision. And that's it. Nothing follows. The contrasts in the fourth stanza of Hood's poem suggest that there is something beyond death.

In the morning they begin their mourning. Every morning brings a new day of some sort. Hers begins when she shuts, not opens, her eyes. Their earthly day dawns without the sun; it's dim, sad, chilly and showery. Since she definitely experiences ("had") a different ("another than") kind of morning, hers must be bright, happy, warm and clear. There is no explicit mention of an afterlife, but we infer that she "lives" on.

See also

Introduction to Thomas Hood


1Mrs. Grundy, a character in Tom Morton's play Speed the Plough (1798), represents conventional, rigid morality.

2George Augustus Sala, "2 A.M. -- A Late Debate in the House of Commons, and the Turnstile of Waterloo Bridge," in Twice Round the Clock; or the Hours of the Day and Night in London, drawings by William M'Connell (London: Houlston and Wright, 1859), 357-373.

3Arthur Morrison, "One More Unfortunate," Divers Vanities (London: Methuen & Co., 1905), 140-41).

4"The Black and White Question," Hood's Own: or, Laughter from Year to Year (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1839), 147.

5This refers to the 1830 Swing riots, named for a fictitious Captain Swing who sent letters to landowners threatening damage if they did not provide jobs for agricultural workers who were being replaced by machines. Eventually twenty counties were affected; hay ricks were burned and animals maimed; rioters were hanged and transported. Violence continued for several years. A religious Swing letter would threaten damnation for failure to do as the sender demands.

6Hood uses the same pun in the poem "Jarvis and Mrs. Cope," which is about Jarvis the coachman and Mrs. Cope a religious hypocrite who was considered to be a pious woman, but

   Not pious in its proper sense,
   But chatt'ring like a bird
   Of sin and grace -- in such a case
   Mag-piety's the word. 

7Emily Dickinson, "I heard a Fly buzz," c. 1862.

   I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --
   The Stillness in the Room
   Was like the Stillness in the Air --
   Between the Heaves of Storm --

   The Eyes around -- had wrung them dry --
   And Breaths were gathered firm
   For that last Onset -- when the King
   Be witnessed -- in the Room --

   I willed my Keepsakes -- Signed away
   What portion of me be
   Assignable -- and then it was
   There interposed a Fly --

   With Blue -- uncertain stumbling Buzz --
   Between the light -- and me --
   And then the Windows failed -- and then
   I could not see to see--

Hood could not have know Dickinson's poem and it's unlikely that she could have been aware of his.

8Antimetable is a repetition of words in successive clauses in reverse grammatical order. Although it can be used for humorous effect, it is just as often used for a serious purpose: "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" (John Kennedy).